An Unlikely Alliance: Ian Fleming and John F. Kennedy

Here’s an article I wrote about the unlikely alliance between Ian Fleming and America’s thirty-fifth president- and how James Bond helped to cause the Cuban Missile Crisis…

In March 1961, the American edition of Life magazine carried a lengthy article ruminating on President Kennedy’s reading habits. There were the usual suspects in terms of heavyweight foreign affairs analysis from the likes of Henry Kissinger and John Kenneth Galbraith. The publication reported that although the president did not get much time for reading, and generally preferred factual material, there were a few fiction authors who met with his approval. Chief among them, claimed Life’s correspondent, was Ian Fleming, with Kennedy particularly enjoying his 1957 thriller From Russia With Love. This ringing endorsement catapulted Fleming to the top of bestseller lists in the United States, boosting the global popularity of the James Bond brand in the months before the release of Dr. No in 1962.

But why was Kennedy such an avid fan of Fleming’s Bond adventures? In truth, there were a number of superficial similarities between the two men. Both were high-living high flyers, notorious womanisers who served their respective countries in the navy during the Second World War; Kennedy commanded a patrol torpedo boat in the field while Fleming took a senior role in Naval Intelligence operations. Both also battled a variety of chronic health problems during later life. Their personal association began in early 1960, when Kennedy was attempting to capture the White House after almost a decade of solid Republican control. Knowing that Kennedy was devoted to Fleming’s Bond novels, his aides arranged an introduction between the two men during the midst of the campaign. The youthful senator was a little starstruck, asking: “Are you THE Ian Fleming?” Fleming evidently appreciated this unique confirmation of his international fame, reminiscing to Hal McClure in 1963: “That’s music to any writer’s ears.” Aside from Kennedy himself, his brother Bobby, wife Jackie and veteran CIA director Allan Dulles were also known to eagerly await a new Bond adventure; after their initial meeting, Fleming sent autographed first editions of his books to Kennedy at the White House, commenting: “It’s the least I can do.”

However, just weeks after Kennedy’s interview with Life magazine, the President distantly crossed paths with Bond’s creator again. During their encounter in 1960, Kennedy had asked Fleming for suggestions on how to deal with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, an avowed communist who wished to establish better diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. Aware of Fleming’s espionage career, Kennedy must have hoped to glean some valuable insights into the subtleties of spying. If so, he may well have been disappointed; one of Fleming’s suggestions was to drop leaflets over Cuba sternly warning that if the government proceeded with carrying out nuclear tests, the irradiated contamination would make men’s beards fall out, thus rendering them impotent. But the CIA had their own ideas for how to tackle Castro’s revolutionary regime. Having failed to assassinate the radical leader with gadgetry ranging from poisoned drinks to exploding seashells, American intelligence chiefs resorted to more direct methods. They recommended that Kennedy authorise an invasion force of disgruntled exiles to land on the Cuban coast at the Bay of Pigs and topple Castro’s supremacy for good. At the same time, a task group of B-29 bombers would launch from US airfields and destroy the Cuban air force on the ground. Unfortunately, the plan proved a costly fiasco. On 15th April 1961, the American air strike failed to fatally damage Castro’s fleet of fighter jets, and a second attack was cancelled for fear of publicly revealing the true scale of the American involvement. Castro himself quickly despatched a 200,000-strong army to put down the beachhead landings, while simultaneously ordering the arrest of thousands thought to be preparing to oppose his leadership. Why, with the odds so stacked against a US triumph, did Kennedy allow the far-fetched scheme to go ahead?

Mark White, writing for the May 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine, believes there may be an interesting answer: “Kennedy found the world of espionage, with its illicit manoeuvring and moral compromises, not reprehensible but intriguing…he loved Ian Fleming’s James Bond…” In other words, President Kennedy hoped to effectively replicate the sort of fiendish and complex intelligence gambit familiar from his affection for the Bond series- and which he had discussed with Fleming personally, almost a year earlier. The notion that Ian Fleming, and the character he created, played a hand in inspiring the outcome of the Bay of Pigs disaster is certainly a fascinating one, and provides a tangential connection between James Bond’s fictional exploits and the real twists and turns of Cold War relations.

Does anyone else know about this curious aspect of Fleming trivia? Could Fleming- and Bond- have directly influenced Presidential decision-making on this occasion? What do others think of this?


  • CoolHandBondCoolHandBond Mactan IslandPosts: 3,850MI6 Agent
    Apart from knowing that FRWL was on JFK’s top reading list I know little else on this subject but intriguing to think that Fleming could have influenced American foreign policy.

    Just want to say how informative your posts are and they are a welcome addition to AJB.
    Yeah, well, sometimes nothin' can be a real cool hand.
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